Aug. 27, 2012
By Jon Cooper
In the sport of tennis, love is synonymous with nothing.
Caroline Lilley, who played two years on the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team, learned that real life is not like tennis and that love can mean everything.
Like all college graduates, Lilley, a Management major from Portland, Ore., who transferred from the University of Kentucky in August, 2010, faced the quandary of what to do with the rest of her life upon receiving her diploma at May commencement. Only a couple of weeks later she found her calling.
It would take her to a place about as far away from Atlanta, Ga., as one could get, the African nation of Uganda.
Through an organization called International Volunteer Headquarters, Lilley signed up to go to the impoverished African nation and work as a volunteer at an orphanage in the town of Bulabakulu. She would spend the month of June lending a helping hand at the Wakiso School of Hope. The beneficiaries of her toil were some 300 children ranging in ages from 1 1/2 to 13.
“I think not only do you learn a lot about yourself but you learn a lot about what it means to be selfless and to not always think, ‘Okay, what’s best for me?'” she said. “There is no electricity, no hot water, no Internet. I don’t think I used technology for a month, but it was awesome. The kids were awesome and I think overall the thing I learned most from them was you can find joy and joy doesn’t depend on your circumstances. They don’t have material things but they’re happy and they’re joyful and they’re loving and they make the most out of everything they’re given. They go to school and they think school is a benefit, not a chore. Their whole outlook on life is so different. It’s so challenging but also it was a great experience.”
It also was quite a culture shock, living in a room without many of the amenities she was used to. While having other volunteers from England and Australia helped her adjust to the living conditions, Lilley admitted that the hardest part of making the adjustment was doing without the little things that people take for granted in a more civilized country.
“Small things that you’d never really think of, like being able to turn a light and turn a faucet on to wash a plate. There were things like that,” she said. “I remember one night doing the dishes. It was dark and I was like, ‘There’s no running water. It’s dark, there’s no light. How are we supposed to do the dishes?’ That was obviously difficult but also I was busy and distracted and there were kids everywhere and there’s always something to do. That helped because I didn’t really have time to sit down and go, ‘Whoa, this is too much,’ because there was so much need and so much for me to do that with little time I didn’t think as much.”
Responsibilities ran the gamut from brick-laying to building and hanging shelves, to painting. In addition to the construction, Lilley taught math and English to the kids and helped run a fitness program, in which she did things like general conditioning and led games like soccer or netball, a popular local game that’s similar to basketball.
The bond she formed with the kids proved the most rewarding part of her time there.
“The kids were probably more welcoming than the adults in the surrounding areas,” she said. “At the time it was challenging when you felt the adults in the area or the surrounding villages weren’t necessarily as happy to have you there as the kids were.
“The kids were so excited. They taught me just give them attention, give them love,” she added. “Just the fact that you’re there spending time with them, that’s such an amazing thing for them. They think that’s so awesome. Just sitting there reading with them or playing soccer with them, going for a run with them, that is so meaningful to them because you’re taking time out of your life, putting things on hold at home and they know that. They’re like, ‘Hey, these people care about me. They’re here for me.'”
In turn, the kids were eager to be around their new friends.
“They were so helpful. They would walk us to town, they’d help us build the shelves, they would help us figure out how to put things up, how to paint,” Lilley said. “Everyone within the orphanage was so helpful and so willing to do whatever we needed them to do. I’ve never had a four-year-old kid come and lay bricks with me before and want to use a wheelbarrow and run around trying to help out. That was pretty cool.”
Adults in the area, naturally were wary of the strangers at first, but those walls came down as the walls the newcomers built went up and Lilley found that leaving after a month of establishing these ties, even to go home, was hard.
“It was difficult trying to show kids that you care about them and then you have to leave,” she said. “So it was definitely not easy.”
Lilley admits that she returned home a different person — someone more aware of the hardships facing the rest of the world and determined to continue making a difference.
She keeps in touch with several of the children she met and receives letters from them — those letters are usually transported by volunteers going to or returning from Uganda. Lilley, who returned to the States with a clearer sense of what she’d like to do for a career — coaching college tennis is at the top of the list — would like to go back to Uganda, better prepared for what is and isn’t there and with a vision of what could be.
“I definitely want to go back, but I want to go back with somewhat of a plan in the making or a structured plan they can possibly implement to help them for the long run, rather than just going there and giving them my time,” she said. “Obviously, it’s important to go and give your time and make sure the people know that you care about them but it’s also important, when you experience something like that, or you feel something inside you that says, ‘Hey, this needs to be done. I think I can do this.’
“It was a great experience. I learned a lot. I really had a great time,” she added. “I hope to stay in touch with some of those kids for the rest of my life. They’ll always be in my thoughts, always be in my prayers. There are some amazing people there.”
For more information on International Volunteer Headquarters, visit www.volunteerhq.org.